By Tracy Mayor
Last February, a freak storm blew through our region one unseasonably warm Thursday night, packing flooding rains and fearsome winds that caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage in about ten minutes’ time.
I was out—minus my husband and kids, a rare week night occurrence—and drove home over pitch-dark roads amid downed power lines and whole stands of trees that had been toppled so suddenly and so recently that the air was full of the smell of pine and dirt. Three times I started down familiar streets, only to have to turn back because they were impassable.
When I finally pulled into our debris-strewn driveway after midnight, I found our power out and our dog waiting anxiously by the door. My boys, a teen and a tween, had gone to bed, but my husband, Tom, was up waiting for me, nodding off at the kitchen table, incongruously surrounded by the happy glow of a dozen winking tea lights.
Those tiny, useless candles, left over from a dinner party, pretty much constituted the whole of our emergency-preparedness stash. Once upon a time (after 9/11, to be precise), we’d halfheartedly stocked up on bottled water, flashlights, batteries and duct tape, with a few cans of Dinty Moore beef stew thrown in for good measure. But over the years the cache had been multiply raided by the disaster-indifferent inhabitants of the place: The water went to a school function and the stew to a canned-food drive; the duct tape was commandeered for a Halloween costume.
Our stash of flashlights, at one time carefully kept within easy reach for just such a emergency, had been scattered to the four corners of our property after a late-night game of outdoor tag one summer night. But even if Tom had been able to locate them in the howling dark, it wouldn’t have mattered. The batteries we’d hoarded had long since been reassigned to game controller duty. I rummaged through a junk drawer and found a tiny penlight for each of us, then gave up and crawled to bed, grateful that I’d finally broken down a few months earlier and bought us all real down comforters, which kept us warm in our beds even as the temperature sank.
By morning, the house was down to fifty-three degrees. Staggering outside, dazed and coffeeless, Tom and I discovered that the enormous crash the boys had heard the night before was an oak tree that had split in half and raked the back of the house as it fell, shattering my older son’s bedroom window and peeling off a line of clapboards on its way down.
In town, power lines swung aimlessly, and whole neighborhoods were blockaded by uprooted trees. Most frightening to any New Englander: There wasn’t an open Dunkin’ Donuts to be found in twenty square miles. Shaken, I returned home and took charge of the situation, the way a person might who’d long ago attended Girl Scout sleepaway camp. I dragged our grill out from its winter hiding place, fired up the briquettes in the sharp February air, feeling a bit foolish, and brought a huge pot of water to a boil.
“Look,” I said proudly to my sons, who were just emerging from their lairs, “we can make instant coffee, Swiss Miss, and oatmeal, and still have enough left over for a little spritz bath to keep clean.”
“Oh my God, I’m not washing in a spaghetti pot.” My sixteen-year-old, Connor, pulled out his iPhone and started tapping. Within ninety seconds, he’d determined that a) our street wasn’t due to get power back for three days; b) one neighborhood of new construction, where the power lines had been buried, was already back online; and therefore, c) he needed a ride to the house of his friend who lived there. Immediately.
“Don’t you want to hang with us and play Bananagrams in front of the fireplace?” I said forlornly, trailing behind him as he tossed some clothes and his toothbrush into a duffle bag.
He gave me a pitying glance. “I’ll be in the car waiting.” And that was the last we saw of that kid for seventy-two hours.
It was just as well. As it turns out, board games in a dark, cold house with a flooding basement kind of suck. Once night fell, Tom, our twelve-year-old, Will, and I gave up trying to be troopers and just went to bed. As I lay huddled next to my husband, I said, “What if this goes on indefinitely? I don’t think our kids have the right coping skills for this kind of thing. I mean, life without the Internet and all.”
“Ditching your family in favor of heat and lights sounds like an excellent coping skill to me,” Tom observed dryly. “In a real crisis, I’d follow the self-involved teenager every time.”
The ’00s have been a tough decade for parenting, anxiety-wise. Y2K set the mood, 9/11 shook us to the core, and suddenly in between changing diapers and taking pregnancy tests, we were worrying about anthrax in the mail and terrorists on every street corner. The first decade of the new millennium brought us two wars, two recessions, a flu pandemic, an autism epidemic, a childhood obesity epidemic, a housing crisis, a health care crisis, a crisis in public education, and toys made with phthalates, BPA, and lead paint from China. Whew.
Meanwhile, the globe continued to bake and, in turn, cook up ecological disasters, as Bill McKibben documents in his wrenching new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010). Eaarth is the name McKibben uses to distinguish the planet on which we now live—“one that’s melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways no human has ever seen”—from the one we have known since the beginning of our existence.
Since record-keeping began, the temperature of the planet has risen by a degree-and-a-half Fahrenheit, enough to trigger a forty-five percent increase in thunderheads, which in turn generate lightning, which sets off wildfires everywhere from California neighborhoods to the Arctic tundra. As oceans warm, hurricanes and typhoons become stronger and more frequent. Meanwhile, glaciers melt, cutting off a reliable supply of clean water to hundreds of millions of people, as has already happened in northwest China, and once fertile areas like Russia’s vast wheat-growing region turn into deserts, taking the food supply with them (as I write, 1.8 million acres are burning out of control in Russia, which has responded by halting its wheat exports).
This past decade, as we helplessly watched the devastation from the string of Florida hurricanes, the Indonesian tsunami, and, most unforgettably, the breakdown of social order in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti following the February 2010 earthquake, it was almost disrespectful not to wonder, could any of that happen here? To me? To my family?
Of course, parents have worried about the state of the world since hominids first began live-birthing their young, and it can’t have been a walk in the park raising kids during World War I, or the Great Depression, or World War II, or the Cold War (heck, the whole first half of the twentieth century was no parenting picnic). But still, compared to the bubbleheaded feel-goodedness of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush eras, the ’00s have indeed been times of extraordinary worry and real economic and psychic pain among American families.
Through it all—or some experts say, because of it all—parents ramped up their involvement with their kids. A 2010 study by two economists at the University of California, San Diego analyzed a dozen surveys, taken between 1965 and 2007, of how Americans say they use their time. The UCSD report found that the amount of time spent with children had risen “dramatically” since the mid-1990s for parents at all income levels but especially among those with a college education.
Throw a stone in any family-friendly neighborhood in the country, and you’re likely to hit an SUV heading off to infant swim or to Kindermusik or gymnastics or ice skating, painting, pottery, quilting, cartooning, photography, cooking, hip-hop, ballet, West African dance, belly dancing, circus camp, herb gathering, backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, canoeing, soccer, football, baseball, kickball, field hockey, lacrosse, basketball, trampoline, violin, piano, guitar, drums, voice, French, Chinese, Spanish, German, archeology, Legos, karate, judo or capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.
What’s up with the frantic enrichment? Partly it’s just plain fun for the kids (if you can afford it, of course), but according to Margaret Nelson, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont, there’s an underlying motivation as well.
Today’s parents—specifically, college-educated, professional-class parents—are deeply worried about their children’s future, says Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (2010). “With the hollowing out of the middle class in this country, it’s no longer clear what kinds of skills will lead to a good occupation and to financial success,” she explains. “A generation ago, you could say, ‘I want my child to be a doctor,’ and that would ensure financial success. Now, nobody knows.”
As a result, that class of parents strives to raise children who are both highly skilled and highly flexible. “They want them to be good athletes, to be good students, good friends, to demonstrate a wide range of skills. So if a child shows even a bit of interest in art, they sign them up for art class,” Nelson says. “The fear is that if their children settle too soon, if they settle on the wrong thing, they’ll be out of luck.”
The goal is not just entry into a top college, or success in a financially stable career, it’s to raise kids who are able to compete in the kind of world that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman laid out in his best-seller, The World Is Flat (2005), where Americans must be well-educated, hard-selling, fast-moving entrepreneurs of their own careers in a fully wired, completely interconnected, always-on global marketplace of ideas and innovation.
Only problem: What if that isn’t at all what the near future will look like? What if we’re raising our kids to succeed in a George Jetson kind of world, but they wind up living more like Fred Flintstone?
You don’t need to be a Jericho junkie or holed up in a “survival condo” in the Mojave Desert (though there are in fact families doing just that) to at least imagine something happening to disrupt our wired, wealthy way of life, either temporarily or permanently.
In Eaarth, McKibben talks about the kinds of disasters induced by climate change that some societies have already experienced and that he says the rest of us can expect in the future: wars over water or food, millions of people displaced by flood or drought or killed by fast-spreading disease. In The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide (2010), financial columnist and Florida father of two Sean Brodrick takes those scenarios to a more specific level.
Brodrick, who writes for the Uncommon Wisdom newsletter and contributes to the Dow Jones MarketWatch, argues that families should be prepared to face any or all of these calamities: an oil crisis; a food crisis; mass immigration; economic depression; natural disasters like wildfires, tornados and ice storms; the collapse of the U.S. energy grid; pandemic; terrorism; and civil unrest sparked by any or all of the above.
Families, he says, need the means to bargain for or provide their own food, water, medicine, education, and entertainment (download your favorite songs and videos now, he advises, before the Internet goes dark!), as well as have access to alternate sources of power (wood, wind or solar) and transportation (scooters or bicycles). And families need to be prepped to either hunker down in situ or evacuate on very short notice ahead of a crowd. (Especially alarming, or exciting, depending upon your point of view, is Brodrick’s list of nine signs you should hit the road—at the sound of explosions in the distance, for instance, or when the government sets a curfew or fires are spreading unchecked.)
The rising generation of American kids—who statistically are fatter, more wired, and less familiar with the outdoors than any generation before them—don’t on the surface seem particularly well prepared to cope with that kind of sudden lifestyle deceleration.
Even if they’re not overweight, the average American child’s life is measured by athletic achievement and academic excellence, neither of which may count for much when the shit hits the fan (or, as Brodrick politely prefers, WTSHTF).
My kids, like many middle- and upper-class children, are in better shape than the national average. They’re fit, and thanks to day camp, overnight camp, school programs, family vacations and an unusually large amount of open space in our hometown, they’ve spent plenty of time outdoors.
But the more I thought about it, the more I worried that their suburban upbringing would only take my kids part of the way toward where they might need to go. We recycle, of course, but we don’t actually make anything from the stuff we save from the trash; a truck hauls it off somewhere, and someone else turns it back into usable material. We buy a share in a community-support farm, so my kids at least know what vegetables look like and where they come from, but our yard is so shady we don’t actually grow anything of our own, which in turn means we compost—but that, too, gets hauled away to a nearby farm. We belong to a sustainable seafood group, so my guys see their father filet a couple of whole fish most Saturday mornings, but none of us could catch one ourselves, or not reliably enough to keep us alive over a long period of time, and not if everyone else were trying to fish the same waters simultaneously.
Thanks to my time with the Girl Scouts, I know how to light a wet-wood fire, but I’m the only one in the house who does. Connor gets off the grid for ten days every summer with the Appalachian Mountain Club, where he has learned all manner of wilderness survival skills, but, ironically, not fire-building. (The super-strict Leave No Trace program that the club has adopted discourages open fires.) Our property happens to abut a hunt club, but none of us has ever hunted, ever handled a gun, or ever killed an animal. Connor has a black belt in taekwondo, and Will is nearly there, but none of us has ever had to defend ourselves, not when someone’s really trying to do us harm. When the marauding hordes come for our stash of Dinty Moore, I’m afraid we’d be helpless to do much besides hand it over.
And then there’s the issue of character. Like lots of other parents, Tom and I want our children to be well-mannered, thoughtful, tolerant, considerate, respectful, empathetic, sympathetic, charitable, and all those other soft and squishy liberal ideals. A few weeks ago, after Will had done a favor for a friend of mine, she exclaimed to me, “Your boys are so kind. I think my kids are great, but I don’t know if anybody would describe them as kind.” At the time, I took that as a huge compliment—for Will but also for the way Tom and I are trying to bring him up.
Now? I don’t know. In a crisis, wouldn’t a kind kid get his butt kicked? Tom and I have spent the last sixteen-and-a-half years busting our humps to raise a couple of nice guys. But in this Brave New World that may be coming down the pike, what if nice guys finish last?
With the exception of home-schooled children, most American kids over the age of five spend the bulk of their time in school or on school-related activities. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, if those schools could be a first line of defense in prepping kids for a new kind of twenty-first century, one that’s hyper-local and hyper-hands-on?
That might happen in certain Montessori- or Waldorf-based schools that, during the early years of a child’s life at least, emphasize experience- and sensory-based learning through practical activities. Charter schools and private schools centered on outdoor education, environmental education, or green education are also already headed down that path.
Public schools show some bright spots of innovation here and there, to be sure. For example, the National Farm to School Network, a grant-funded collaborative program administered by eight regional centers, promotes gardening and composting on school property. So far the network supports 2,224 programs nationwide. The Leave No Child Inside movement, inspired by Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, promotes nature-based learning and outdoor classrooms in schools. And many schools, particularly middle schools, participate in adventure programs like Outward Bound and Project Adventure, designed to challenge students physically while promoting leadership and team-building skills.
But for the most part, public schools are overwhelmed just trying to deliver the old kind of twenty-first-century education, the one where students need to be knowledge workers in a wired, interconnected, global economy. In fact, thanks to chronic underfunding only made worse by the recession and an ever-increasing list of state and federal mandates, many schools are having a hard time hitting the mark for last century’s curriculum standards.
Consider the Common Core State Standards, an initiative spearheaded by the National Governors Association to establish a uniform set of expectations for students anywhere in the country. Thirty states (including my own, Massachusetts) have signed on, and yet, to educators and others who follow trends in education, the standards, which cover only English language and math, seem depressingly out of touch with either vision of twenty-first-century life—wired or wild.
My boys both have a class called Life Skills, but it’s about good nutrition and staying off drugs and avoiding STDs. That’s fine as far as it goes—God knows you don’t want to be trying to survive an apocalypse and contending with venereal disease at the same time—but I wish they had more of what we used to call, in the dark ages when I was in public school, Shop and Home Ec (the latter now more snazzily known as Family and Consumer Sciences).
Those disciplines are being dropped from curriculae across the country in favor of keyboarding, Power Point 101 and so forth. (Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, is a lament for the loss of what he calls the “useful arts” from our schools and our society.) At our regional high school, shop and home ec (well, their better-named equivalents) are offered only as electives, but kids vying for top-tier colleges don’t take them seriously in any case; they’re too busy trying to pack their schedules with the AP classes that we’re repeatedly told are like catnip to admissions officers.
Last year, Will’s middle school replaced a popular engineering class that had kids designing bridges and building mini racecars with a public speaking class. The move was partly due to budget cuts—the engineering teacher, who had tenure, was expensive, and the speech teacher was not—but also due to the conviction that public speaking was a more useful modern-day skill than building things with your hands. Me, I didn’t agree.
What should the role of education be in a climate-changed, crisis-prone world? I put in a phone call to McKibben, who is both a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and father to a seventeen-year-old daughter.
“When education started in this country, the goal was to round off people who were already practically skilled,” McKibben says. “Most people grew up knowing how to do things like raise their own food and an astonishing number of tasks that we no longer know how to do. You went to school to read the classics and get some polish.
“We’re now kind of in the opposite situation, where kids spend one-hundred percent of their time in a mediated environment. We learn about the world through one school or another. So we might need to be thinking more about using school to introduce us to those practical things that we don’t know how to do anymore.”
Suburban survival guy Sean Brodrick lists in his book new careers that adults should be prepared to adopt should they find themselves in a world where the economy has collapsed or fuel has disappeared, jobs like bike mechanic, tool maker, cobbler, acoustic musician, or (my favorite) beer maker.
On the phone, I point out to him that, with the exception of music, none of those is a skill commonly picked up by kids, either in school or at their myriad enrichment activities.
“I’m not saying you should run out and apprentice your kid to a tailor,” Brodrick says. “Just pick a skill that can be done in the absence of electricity, something they can do with their hands where they can pitch in.” His own son takes archery, for example; his daughter rides horses (which counts, I suppose, as an alternative source of transportation). Brodrick himself makes beer, for the fun of it now, he says, but also because, as he writes in his book, “Everybody is going to be stressed after a collapse. You might be able to make a good living thinking outside the box on how you can relieve [that] stress.”
Beyond the homemade brewskis, he makes sure that his kids are learning more than one language, that they can do basic calculations in their heads, not just on a calculator, and that they learn how to haggle, a skill he believes will become invaluable when resources run scarce.
In short, when it comes to preparing your kids for the worst, he says, “I wouldn’t tell them you’re going to die early and they’ll be left in the world on their own, but you do want to raise them to be able to survive without you.”
Other than the unimaginably sorrowful assertion that we—twentieth-century humans—have broken the planet pretty much permanently, the other big takeaway from McKibben’s Eaarth is that climate-change disasters are and will be happening everywhere, simultaneously.
Thanks to our world-is-flat connectedness, there isn’t and won’t be any place to go where you won’t be affected in some way, he contends. In 2008, when an over-enthusiastic United States suddenly decided to keep a slightly larger portion of its corn crop home, for use as biofuel, rather than exporting it, the move caused food riots in thirty-seven countries, McKibben writes. Oops.
That extreme interconnection is unique to our generation, and it’s scary. But if you can look beyond it—or, more accurately, before it—the human race has a long and storied history of disasters, calamities, and catastrophes, and through it all, at least some people have managed to beg, borrow, and barter their way toward survival. I wanted to know: What skills did these survivors have, what actions did they take, what qualities did they possess, besides luck, that saw them through?
Mucking around online, I found a study done by a team of researchers from the International Centre for Migration and Health in Geneva on mental health and coping in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was intriguing, because before the Yugoslav wars, Sarajevo and other cities in the region were modern, cosmopolitan municipalities, ones that went very quickly downhill in the war. That rapid change might be roughly analogous to what Americans might be confronted with if, say, a water war broke out between Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The report, which looked at the impact of civilian uprooting, displacement, and family disruption during war, found that “there was an overwhelming loss of perceived power and self-esteem. Over twenty-five percent of displaced people…said they no longer felt they were able to play a useful role; even in non-displaced populations approximately eleven percent of those interviewed said that they had lost a sense of worth. Widespread depression and feelings of fatigue and listlessness were common and may have prevented people from taking steps to improve their situation.”
This plays into what Brodrick asserts: In a prolonged crisis, when schools are shut and people aren’t able to go to their twenty-first-century jobs, we’ll still need something to do—not just to obtain the basic necessities of life, though we’ll need that, but also for our mental health. More important, history shows that we need to do these hands-on, take-action kinds of things not alone, or not even hunkered down with just our immediate relatives, but in larger groups.
That can be a thorny concept for Americans to embrace, what with our long-standing national tendency to exalt the virtues of the rugged individual, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at the The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
“When we think of the Wild West, we admire the rugged loner, but what really helped the West succeed was community cooperation—barn raisings and so on—and government assistance with things like irrigation, transportation and electrification,” Coontz points out.
That natural tension between loner and community is still with us, she says: “The things that allow you to succeed as an individual in a competitive society—pursuing your goal with tunnel vision, being the very best—those things are unhelpful in a real crisis like war or depression.”
In researching her forthcoming book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Coontz interviewed women who had lived through the Depression. Rather than stockpiling food and resolving to go it alone, families cooperated. “If they had an opportunity to buy flour, they bought more than they needed and gave it to other people, counting that those families would return the favor when they could. It was relationship-based survival.”
In fact, as far back as prehistoric times, says Coontz, foraging and hoarding never guaranteed that a family would have enough to eat. Instead, a hunter who’d had a successful kill would share with the group, with the understanding that his family would have a share of future kills. “From earliest times, the best chance you have of increasing your fitness as an individual is to share and cooperate with the group,” she says.
All that made me feel a bit better about long-term crises like another depression or a currency collapse. I picture my little family banding together with our neighbors, us with our stash of canned stew, them with the big generators they fired up after the storm that kept their house warm and their lamps lit as we shivered in the dark.
But what about more urgent, if shorter-term, catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina? Haven’t we all absorbed the horror stories of people looting, shooting, and leaving their fellow humans to die?
As it turns out, the people who were a danger in New Orleans were not looters: They were people who thought other people were out to loot them. So explains Rebecca Solnit, whose book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009), examines how people behaved in five North American disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires; the 1917 Halifax cargo ship explosion; the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; September 11, 2001; and Hurricane Katrina.
In New Orleans, where Solnit spent time interviewing survivors, “elite panic” was the big danger once the floodwaters stopped rising. Wealthier (usually white) people, falsely believing that looting was rampant in the city, organized and began firing upon and sometimes killing unarmed African Americans. The second group of “elites,” Solnit contends, were those in power—the law enforcement and other government officials whose edicts imprisoned and endangered residents, in essence treating victims as if they were criminals.
Those who managed to avoid both the vigilantes and the official blockades behaved admirably, often overcoming their own suspicions and prejudices to do so. (As she puts it in her book, these volunteer rescuers were “armed, often, but also armed with compassion.”) In fact, from all the disasters she studied, Solnit concludes, “The prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic and brave.” I perked up a bit, reading this, because it sounded more than a bit like my list of squishy liberal values. Maybe there was some hope for my boys after all?
In her research, Solnit discovered a quality linking all these disasters: In the midst of catastrophe, survivors experienced an unexpected relief, even joy, when their worlds were turned upside down and their complex, pressured lives were reduced back to the basics. “Sometimes disaster provides a remarkable reprieve,” she writes, citing “a sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.”
On the phone, she sums it up this way: “You know the way machines reset after a blackout? In a disaster, it’s as if people revert to their original settings. They’re resourceful; they’re able to improvise.”
So what message is there in all of this for people raising kids?
Beyond the obvious basics (children in earthquake- and flood-prone areas should practice the appropriate evacuation techniques; everyone should have practiced what to do in a fast-moving fire), Solnit says children and parents alike should know the people in their physical communities and be ready to work with them, whether they feel fully akin to them or not. “In a disaster, your wealth is going to be the people around you,” she points out. “Your Facebook friend list is not going to get you out of a burning building.”
This sense of physical community is where the middle and upper classes are sometimes at a deficit. “People who are poor often live closer to the edge, so their wealth is each other, their survival is each other,” she says. “Middle-class, white people have liberated themselves from that. In the course of that, we’ve sometimes lost those networks of affinity and trust and knowledge, of knowing the way around a city.”
That message resonates with McKibben. “The real skill for survival doesn’t have to do with whether you can start a fire,” he says. “It has to do with whether you can get along with the people around you. In some ways, this has become the skill we’re least good at—building societies and building contact with each other.”
Brodrick puts this same sentiment a bit more bluntly: “If you think you can get through a disaster by defending just your own turf, here’s something to think about. These crises will come in waves, and in between, civilization is going to return. Order will be restored, and when it does, you don’t want to have been the biggest asshole on the block. People will remember that.”
Trust me on this: It messes with your head to think too much about The End of the World As We Know It. After reading and talking nothing but Armageddon for weeks on end, I found myself pricing solar panels and making mental space in our yard for a flock of chickens and perhaps a private well, while all around me in our affluent little suburb people continued gassing up their SUVs, edging their lawns, and cranking the AC as if nothing at all were wrong with the cosmos.
When I try to sort out how I feel about all this, I’m not at all sure the altruistic, joyful response to crisis that Solnit talks of would kick in for my family, at least not right away. Sure, we connected with our community during our blackout—neighbors checked on senior citizens, residents with chainsaws helped clear driveways and side roads, and the library, which had its power restored early, quickly turned into a kind of rowdy, indoor town square, with people swapping news and damage reports while re-charging their drained cell phones and tapping into the building’s free Wi-Fi via their laptops.
That said, my chief recollection of our three days without power is of deep cold and deep crankiness. And I was a little shocked to see how many people high-tailed it out of town, and how quickly—to relatives, to hotels, or, most commonly, to their ski houses in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. Gee, I wondered, do I have to add “buy a second home” to my disaster to-do list? All in all, I’m not looking forward to coping with catastrophe, even if there may be an unexpected state of grace included as a side dish.
Still, there is a kind of twisted comfort in thinking about the kind of “powered-down” society that McKibben says we’ll have to adopt if we’re going to continue to live on Eaarth, “holding on against the storm,” he writes, by living “lightly, carefully, and gracefully.” I know I’m being naïve, but it’s not completely distressing to picture my family making a quiet life amidst this kind of long-term societal collapse—bartering with our neighbors, hoeing our small plot, homeschooling and hauling firewood, no longer concerned with any modern definition of success.
Bringing a child into the world is an act of optimism, and while nobody reads you the fine print in the delivery room, the unstated implication is that as a parent you’re expected to hold up your end of the bargain—that is, to keep on being optimistic, even when the evidence is to the contrary.
I started out worrying that we’d all have to learn how to shoot a gun or build a barricade around our four-bedroom colonial, and, while it’s true we all need to have something we can do with our hands, I’m at least a little bit comforted to know that thing can be fishing, or tailoring, or repairing a bicycle.
As for the community piece, well, there’s a bit of a vindication there as well: Tom and I have long second-guessed our decision to risk financial ruin by moving to our close-knit but expensive community. Now it makes some sense to have invested in a kind of living arrangement—which, to be fair, can happen in cities and towns of all sizes and income brackets—where you’re forced to get along with your neighbors, or at minimum tolerate them politely, because those are the people you see over and over every day, every season of every year.
Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.
If that doesn’t work, and the shit really does hit the fan, I’m teaching them to brew beer.
Author’s Note: I had planned on using this space to try to lighten things up a bit—say, make a joke about not having to pay for college now that the End of the World is nigh—but the fact is, having paid full attention for six weeks to the state our planet is in, I’m not really feeling the funny. Instead, a request: Please read Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth. (It’s short, you can make it through, even with a baby at your breast or a toddler at your knee.) Then share it with a friend.
Brain, Child (Fall 2010)
About the Author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.
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